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Thursday 24 Aug 2017 | 13:29 | SYDNEY
Thursday 24 Aug 2017 | 13:29 | SYDNEY

Lebanon's new reality

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COMMENTS

12 May 2008 10:34

Last week’s emphatic takeover of West Beirut by Hizbullah and its junior Shi’a ally Amal was a classic example of how the Lebanese Shi’a are effectively Lebanon’s new powerbrokers. Having been pressured by the government, it responded by destroying its Sunni competitors while leaving Christian East Beirut untouched, effectively vetoing government actions through force of arms at the same time as trying to minimize the risk of civil war.

The episode is of greater importance than one sectarian group bettering another though. Most importantly, Hizbullah for the first time used force against another Lebanese sectarian group. Conventional wisdom had always been that Hizbullah could not afford to do this because its moral authority as a national resistance movement would be discredited and it would become just another Lebanese militia. The fact that they did shows that they regarded the Siniora government’s moves as a fundamental threat to the organisation, and perhaps more importantly they no longer care what the non-Shi’a Lebanese (or non-Hizbullah aligned) polity think.

Hizbullah’s actions were also designed for a wider audience. The humiliating defeat of Saad Hariri’s Future Movement and the closure of its media outlets sent a clear message to the government’s backers, particularly the United States and Saudi Arabia. Coming just before President Bush’s Middle East trip this week where he is due to meet with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, Hizbullah demonstrated that the US-backed Lebanese government holds little real sway in the country and that concessions that address Hizbullah’s political demands will need to be made. Iranian and Syrian supporters of Hizbullah and Amal would also have been pleased with the week’s results.

Sitting above all this has been the army, which sees its role as protecting the republic rather than the government. Its determination to avoid becoming embroiled in the sectarian fighting which would threaten its own unity allowed it to remain neutral, give defeated factions someone to surrender arms to and victorious factions someone to hand territory over to. The army has also effectively overturned the government’s decisions regarding Hizbullah’s communications network and reinstated the Shi’a head of airport security.  The government’s frustration with the army’s neutrality was evident in Prime Minister Siniora’s assertion that “I have called on the army to live up to its national responsibilities without hesitation or delay and this has not happened until now”. The past week has shown that while the Siniora government may have constitutional power it has no means of using it. Dialogue with Hizbullah, who are now in the driving seat, will have to occur quickly if sectarian conflict is not to tip Lebanon over the edge.    

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